The Red Lion

Written by Neil Armstrong

Patrick Marber’s mid-1990s triumphs, Dealer’s Choice and Closer, established him as a premier-league playwright, but until recently he had not written a new play in years. Then, in 2015, a thrilling new work about the behind-the-scenes machinations at a small football club opened at the National Theatre and confirmed his status as one of Britain’s leading writers.

This leaner, slightly reworked production of The Red Lion has transferred to London from Newcastle’s Live Theatre, where it attracted sell-out audiences. It is set in the dank dressing room of a semi-professional Northeast club and revolves around the clashes between three men over the course of three Saturdays.

The devious club manager Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson) thinks promising new young player Jordan (Dean Bone) might be the solution to the problems he faces on and off the pitch. The old kit man Yates (John Bowler), a former club legend, is suspicious of Kidd’s wheeler-dealer approach. He doesn’t want to see the youngster, who appears to be an untarnished innocent, corrupted. He clings to an outdated notion of the beautiful game.

The Lions’ matches might attract crowds of only 700, but there is far more at stake than gate receipts. ‘The game is ritual,’ Yates says. ‘Made-up rules, man-made oppositions, make- believe. The crowd, the ceremony, the collusion of souls willing it to matter, make it matter.’ It’s often said that football is like a religion for some fans, and this is a work filled with passion and religious imagery: prayer, worship, salvation. It was born out of the real-life role that Marber, an Arsenal supporter who was losing his faith in the game, played in helping to save a small club, Lewes FC. The experience made him
want to write again.

Will theatregoers who don’t know their Arsenal from their elbow enjoy it? Absolutely. The Red Lion is about football, in the way that Moby Dick is about fishing. We are on sport-as-metaphor-for-life turf here; well-trodden territory, but Marber makes it fresh and vital, funny and sad. He mourns what has been lost from the grass-roots game – and our communities – with dialogue that turns on a sixpence from lairy to lyrical. The play darkens as the three men squabble and fight and the secrets of each are revealed, yet it also hints at hope of redemption.

With a small performance space, not much bigger than an actual dressing room and stinking of Deep Heat, we, the audience, are colluding in this ritual,  making it matter. And the excellent cast all play their hearts out.

Marber shoots, he scores! Howay the Lions!

Until 2 December at Trafalgar Studios, London SW1: 0844-871 7632,